North Korea may have largely fallen from news headlines in recent weeks, but new developments in its nuclear missile programs remain pressing concerns for the Department of Defense, according to a new report.
President Obama made no mention of North Korea at his third White House news conference of the year on Tuesday, opting instead to discuss Syria, the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and immigration reform. It was starkly contrasted from weeks earlier, when an escalation in demonstrations of military force from both sides of the Korean peninsula dominated front pages worldwide.
North Korea poses one of the "most critical security challenges" for the U.S. in Asia, according to a new report the Pentagon submitted to Congress Thursday. North Korea's danger to the continental U.S. only increases as it continues its pursuit of a long-range nuclear weapon program among other military initiatives.
"North Korea remains a security threat because of its willingness to undertake provocative and destabilizing behavior," the report states, "including attacks on the Republic of Korea (ROK), its pursuit of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles, and its willingness to proliferate weapons in contravention of its international agreements and United Nations Security Council Resolutions."
The hermetic Asian nation has demonstrated a worrying string of aggressive behavior in recent years, the report states. It sank the South Korean navy ship Cheonan and shelled Yeonpyeong Island in 2010, causing fatalities in each. North Korea also continues its persistent testing of nuclear weapon components, including long-range ballistic missile programs in 2012 and a third nuclear test, this one in February.
North Korea has repeatedly said that developing nuclear missiles is necessary to counter what it calls U.S. hostility.
"North Korea will move closer to this goal, as well as increase the threat it poses to U.S. forces and Allies in the region, if it continues testing and devoting scarce regime resources to these programs," the report states. North Korea continues to develop the TD-2 missile, which the report says could reach parts of the U.S. if configured as an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
The report also documents the brutal grip the North Korean regime has on its people. Kim Jong Un, the latest leader in a family dynasty that has ruled since 1948, sees this oppression as his lifeline to maintain power.
"The regime's greatest security concern is opposition from within, and outside forces – primarily South Korea – taking advantage of internal instability to topple the regime and achieve Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People's Republic of Korea unification of the Korean Peninsula," the report states.
"In North Korea's view, the destruction of regimes such as [Romanian General Secretary Nicolae] Ceausescu, [Saddam] Hussein, and [Moammar] Gadhafi was not an inevitable consequence of repressive governments, but rather a failure to secure the necessary capabilities to defend their respective autocratic regime's survival."
A string of cyberattacks since 2009 likely indicates that North Korea has militarized its online hacking efforts. This includes an attack on the South Korean national bank in April 2011, and a series of "distributed denial of service" attacks from 2009 to 2011 that shut down South Korean military, government and private industry websites.
The report stipulates cyberwarfare is cost effective for North Korea and will likely remain a priority as its military spending continues to cripple its economy. But it likely won't achieve this on its own.
"As a result of North Korea's historical isolation from outside communications and influence, it is likely to employ Internet infrastructure from third-party nations," the report states.